Writing Bareback

I admit it–I’m a big fan of Professional Bull Riding. The bulls are doing what they are born to do, and they trot out of the arena so quickly they must be expecting a sweet reward after they’ve left some cowboy clinging to the fence. (That’s the aptly named Ryan Dirteater in the photo to the right–a young Cherokee rider who’s the latest sensation.) It seems to me to be the fairest contest between “man and beast” in sport–and no, it isn’t true that the bulls’ pbr-bull-riding-in-st-louistesticles are cinched to get them to buck–that part of their anatomy is far too valuable to mess with! I also have to admit that I don’t like women’s gymnastics very much, despite the incredible things gymnasts can do, largely because so many of the contestants look like sad and stressed-out little girls.

I’ve been thinking about an article I read recently, raising the question of why writers tend to whine so much about what hard work writing is. I’m not sure they actually do, but if so, one possible explanation is that a lot of non-writers seem to think there’s not much to it. Some may think that “having a book in you” is really the important thing, and all that remains to be done is throw down the words on the page, which pretty much anybody could do if they had the time, or knew someone who could give them some advice about how to get started, or had a ride to the local college to check out a creative writing class. It seems as if we’re all pretty much equal–the ones who have done it and the ones who are going to do it some day. “You wrote a book? Hey that’s cool–listen to this great idea I have!”

So what does this have to do with vaulting and bull riding? I think a far bigger reason writers feel misunderstood is that we make it look easy. The writer’s goal is to disguise all the hard work under a smooth flow of words and ideas, to make it seem delivered from Plato’s world of perfect forms by a toga-wearing muse. Gymnastics is like that too. Perfection is the goal–a flow of movement without any glitches. Rather like a flow of words without any glitches. We all know how hard gymnasts work to deliver that short burst of visible effort, but I wonder whether people understand it’s really like that for writers too. On the other hand, bull riding is about handling glitches while a crowd watches. A rider scores by staying on for “only” eight seconds, but the bull’s score is added to that, based on how tough the glitches were to handle. It’s not always pretty, and no one would ever say it looks effortless.

Being an author is a bit like lettering in both sports. Writing UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH and THE FOUR SEASONS took, I calculate, approximately 2000 hours of time apiece, spread out over a several year period. That’s an entire year of forty-hour work weeks, with two weeks of vacation. And quite frankly, I think that’s an underestimation. And then, when it’s there on the page, it seems as if it all poured out, with little more effort than it takes to read. I’m noticing this particularly right now, since I’m finally satisfied with a passage of about 1500 words from THE LAWS OF MOTION that took me just three hours to draft, but more than ten to revise. Okay, I hear myself whining. I guess the guy who wrote the article was right.

Serious writers bring everything they have to the task–their life experience, their passions, their research, a lifetime of learning from reading, their past successes and failures with the written word, and mountains of stubborn willpower to make it all come together on the page. We lay it all out there while we’re sitting in front of that computer screen, and sometimes it’s just as intense when it looks as if we’re doing something else entirely, like staring out the window or going to get the mail. A cross between bull riding and gymnastics. Now there’s a sport for you!


Who’s Out There Reading?

I’ve been told that one of the things new authors tend to do is obsess over ratings and reviews. Because I’d had a lot of experience with Young Adult (YA) titles before breaking into the adult trade book market, I’d gotten over a lot of that. I can laugh off the occasional cranky review, and don’t expect to see the whole world talking about my book. My YA contracts were “work for hire,” so I didn’t even have to concern myself about sales after publication. Freelance writing is different, though, and it’s hard not to care at least a little about how the public is responding.

I’ve learned that Amazon rankings usually give a sense only for whether the book is selling almost no copies, selling a few, or selling a little better than that. The rankings fluctuate widely with the purchase (or lack of it) of only a few copies, and a book has to be in the top several hundred to be filling up the trucks leaving the warehouses. I’ve learned that the proliferation of websites devoted to reader reviews means that I will probably never see the majority of published comments about my work.

For a new writer of mainstream books such as UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH and THE FOUR SEASONS, it’s important to remember that sales are a significant marker of success, but not the only one. Libraries, used book stores, and book-sharing networks are all means by which authors develop a reputation that will carry over into the next book, so it’s impossible to know how much impact the sale of an individual copy is having.

That’s why the statistical data for this website have been so interesting to me. Yesterday, for example, there were more than eighty visits to the home page. All those people had somehow become aware of my work as an author and were interested enough to track my website down. Some clearly have come more than once, since over the course of each month, approximately eight hundred unique visitors make around two thousand visits total. What do they do when they get to the home page? Almost all look at the diary and scroll through the photos. Dynamic pages–the ones that get frequent updates–are by far the most popular.

So what does this tell me? People are showing interest in my work, and that’s very good news indeed. Thanks for coming to my website, for loving books, and for supporting authors.

Finding Emilie

Goodbye France, Hello Manuscript

It’s now been almost two weeks since I returned from France, and I’ve been too busy launching back into my novel in progress, THE LAWS OF MOTION, and recovering from lingering jet lag to be able until now to add a new entry to this site.

I wrote during the trip about points in between but not about the delightful beginning and end to my stay in Paris and eastern France, so I’ll focus only on those two things here. I began my stay in Paris with dinner on the Left Bank with Jacques Guiod, the French translator of THE FOUR SEASONS. Here we are, taking a look at the newly released LES france-060QUATRE SAISONS. By the end of the trip, I’d checked in six bookstores, large and small, in cities and in small towns, and found copies of it everywhere. Thanks, Jacques! If it’s a hit in France, take a big bow!

On the last day of the trip, I visted Ferney, the town near the Swiss border where Voltaire lived until shortly before his death. I’d gone to France with much of THE LAWS OF MOTION drafted, but the scenes set at Ferney are from the climactic pages of the book, dscn3875which are still ahead of me. It might sound odd to some people, but I’ve found it immensely helpful to do my on-site research after I’ve written a draft of a book. Basic information about settings is usually pretty easy to get at home. It’s the little facts and the small details that aren’t mentioned that I need to go find out for myself–what kinds of trees are in a garden, the floor plan of a house, the view from a particular window. Traveling afterwards, I can go with a better idea of exactly what I need to know, and I don’t end up regretting what I didn’t notice or didn’t think to do while was there. Of course if this writing thing ever starts paying the bills, I’d move to a place and write the book there, but I imagine that’s every writer’s dream!

It was, therefore, different and rather exhilarating to be at Ferney and imagine what might happen in the last chapter of my book rather than just fine-tuning the details. I’ll see how this new approach to research goes when I get to that point in the book, but right now, I’m going to sign off and get back to work. I’m rooting for my heroine, Lili, and I can’t wait to see what she’s going to do next!

Finding Emilie, Uncategorized

La Divine Emilie

I’m now in Strasbourg, France. My brain is on overload, and my stomach is on overeat at this point, and it’s nice to have a day of both mental and gastronomical fasting!

The day before yesterday I visited the chateau where I set the epilogue of my novel-in-progress. I walked around saying to myself, “this is Delphine’s house,” and “this is Lili’s room,” even though the two main characters in THE LAWS OF MOTION are fictional creations. To me, the fact that a very real and very frightened Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette stopped at Etoges on their failed attempt to flee Versailles has less resonance than Lili and Delphine’s footsteps in the worn depressions of the marble stairs and the echoes of their voices in the salon.

The Chateau d'Etoges, setting for the epilogue of THE LAWS OF MOTION.
The Chateau d'Etoges, setting for the epilogue of THE LAWS OF MOTION.

From there, I went on to Cirey-sur-Blaise, in many respects the ground zero of this trip. This is the ancestral home of the Marquis du Chatelet, Emilie du Chatelet’s husband, and it is here that Emilie lived with Voltaire for fifteen years, first as lovers then as friends (with her husband’s full support–a complicated arrangement, but workable in those times). I saw their library and study, their dining room, and the theatre they constructed in an attic space, where they and their guests performed Voltaire’s plays and Emilie sang the lead role in operas. Apparent her memory and her voice were two more astonishing things about her, in addition to her brilliance as a mathematician and physicist. So great was the couple’s renown that some of the most important people in France braved the four-day journey from Paris to this incredibly remote location in Champagne just to be in their company.

I had arranged a private tour of the chateau, since high tourist season doesn’t start until July 1. I was aware that the owner-occupant of Cirey did not speak English, so I’d been dusting off my French to make the tour work. Although she spoke in rapid fire, I understood almost everything she said, and when I asked questions or made comments (in complete sentences no less!) I was pleased she understood me every time. Of course later that evening, I was so tired I couldn’t have found my own head if I’d had to ask for it in French, but no matter! Because it isn’t clear at this

With the owner of Chateau de Cirey, Emilie du Chatelet's home
With the owner of Chateau de Cirey, Emilie du Chatelet's home

point which interior shots I am permitted to post, I’ll show only a shot of myself outside with Madame. She’s holding a copy of LES QUATRE SAISONS, the French translation of THE FOUR SEASONS.

As I expected, people who visit Cirey are primarily interested in it as the home of Voltaire. If they have heard of Emilie at all, she is usually a footnote in the great writer’s life–his companion, his supporter, his muse. For me, of course, it’s the opposite. My novel, The Laws of Motion, is not directly about her, but about the daughter she died after giving birth to at age forty-three, right at the point her work had catapulted her into the top echelon of scientists in Europe. Her translation of and commentary on Newton’s Principia is still the standard edition in France today. There’s more about her on the pages for The Laws of Motion on this site.

On the way to Strasbourg I made a brief stop at the palace at Luneville, where Emilie du Chatelet died. She is buried under the floor of the parish church there, and it was deeply moving to come to pay my respects. And now, it’s on to Ferney, where Voltaire lived after her death. Located right outside Geneva, it was in a good spot for him, since he lived more or less continually under threat of arrest for his caustic commentaries on French society. From Ferney, he could make a quick dash across the border, as I too will have to do in about a week’s time to catch the plane for home.

Marker of the spot under the floor of the Eglise de Saint Jacques in Luneville, where Emilie du Chatelet is buried
Marker of the spot under the floor of the Eglise de Saint Jacques in Luneville, where Emilie du Chatelet is buried
Finding Emilie, Uncategorized

Getting It Right, With Lots of Surprises

The authors I met at the recent conference of the Historical Novel Society were in agreement that there’s an obligation to both the subject and the reader to get the facts right in situations where the facts are there to be discovered, whether through research or direct experience.  We write fiction, and of course the imagination rules supreme, but the stories need to be grounded firmly in

Dwarfed, lower left, by the scale of the grounds at Vaux-le-Vicomte
Dwarfed, lower left, by the scale of the grounds at Vaux-le-Vicomte

their particular environment.  I have been fortunate enough to be able to travel to the places where all my books have been set–Venice, Greece, and now France, in addition to Lithuania for my narrative non-fiction book Until Our Last Breath.

Some of the most emotionally dramatic scenes in my new novel-in-progress, The Laws of Motion, are set at Vaux-le-Vicomte, a chateau about an hour by car from Paris.  Since Fontainebleau and Versailles are more famous, I expected to see only a few tourists, but it turned out the day I had chosen for the visit was the annual celebration of the courtly era at the chateau, and thousands of French people had shown up costumed for the event. It was a lot of fun to turn around and see Voltaire, or a woman in a dress I could imagine my characters wearing as they strolled the same grounds.

And, as usual, I discovered I had a lot of the details wrong.  One scene simply could not have happened the way I described, despite having pored over photos of the location before writing it.  Another whose accuracy I doubted

Celebration of the Grand Siecle at Vaux-le-Vicomte.  Notice costumed lady sacked out at lower left.
Celebration of the Grand Siecle at Vaux-le-Vicomte. Notice costumed lady sacked out at lower left.

turned out to be plausible just the way I had it.  But best of all was the moment when I saw the game room inside the chateau and discovered, to my astonishment and delight,  a table and two chairs set up for  the popular game of trictrac–just like a scene in the book where my protagonist, Lili, gets the better of a young man she dislikes. Sometimes it’s all so real it stops you dead in your tracks!

Today,  Versailles.  Always deeply conflicting to witness that kind of grandeur.  I’ll be glad to move on from it.

Uncategorized, Until Our Last Breath

In Search of the Partisans of Vilna

I kept a journal on my 2004 research trip to Vilnius, Lithuania, while I was writing Until Our Last Breath. Recently, San Diego Jewish World began an eight-part serialization of that journal, revised and edited for publication. “In Search of the Partisans of Vilna”  will run weekly on Wednesdays through mid-July.   In it, I write about specific experiences that made the  Holocaust more real to me, the emotional impact of my journey, and the insights I gained that enriched the book.

My author page at San Diego Jewish World will have links to all eight parts of the journal. It’s at the halfway point now, with entry 4 published this week.

Abba Kovner and the Partisans of Vilna
Abba Kovner and the Partisans of Vilna

Where the Past Isn’t Past

Jane Rotrosen Agency clients at HNS Conference
Jane Rotrosen Agency clients at HNS Conference

I’ve been attending the Historical Novel Society Conference in the Chicago area, and have been overwhelmed by the excitement of being around so many people who love, understand, honor, and practice the art of writing.  A number of clients of the Jane Rotrosen Agency were here, including Susan Holloway Scott and Karen Harper, as well as Sheramy Bundrick, a new client of my former agent, Barbara Braun.  Also here were Margaret George, whose novel on Helen of Troy was inspirational to me in writing Penelope’s Daughter, and Lauren Willig, whom I was able to thank for writing my favorite blurb for The Four Seasons.  I also connected up with Catherine Delors, whose fantastic book, Mistress of the Revolution, has been my latest Kindle read.

I spoke as part of two panels, both on various aspects of working with real life characters, and was pleased to see that my views about balancing fact and fiction were widely shared. It’s important not to take on the burden of the scholar, because we are story tellers first and foremeost. However,  readers trust us to be well-informed and not to mislead them about important facts of history and the personalities of different eras.  I was pleased that my sentiments that we should not defame the dead because they can’t defend themselves was well enough received to find its way into the evening keynote speaker’s remarks.

I never for a minute forget how fortunate I am to have found my way to the speakers’ side of the table.  Many, many people write well and work equally hard and have not had my good fortune.  Echoing Margaret George’s reminder in her keynote address,  not to get so lost in the past that we forget to live in the present, I found a lot of joy at this conference at the opportunity historical fiction provides to live squarely in both.

With Sheramy Bundrick at HNS
With Sheramy Bundrick at HNS
Enjoying a laugh at one of the panels at HNS 2009
Enjoying a laugh at one of the panels at HNS 2009

With Catherine delors, showing off her book on my Kindle


With Catherine Delors, showing off her book on my Kindle
Uncategorized, Until Our Last Breath

“Begin again, Ernest. And this time, concentrate.”

When his good friend Gertrude Stein finished reading an early draft of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, she handed it to him, saying “Begin again, Ernest. And this time, concentrate.”

Susan Vreeland shared this story during her speech for the San Diego Book Awards earlier this month, and I’ve been mulling it over since then. I suspect that what Stein was reacting to was a falling away from the truth in her friend’s novel.

“Truth in fiction?” you might be asking.  Consider this beautiful passage from Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast. “When I was started on a new story and I could not get going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.”

I must admit, I find Hemingway difficult to enjoy. I don’t use his writing as a model because that would be untrue to my own voice, but I love his acknowledgment of the need to be true when I write.  Facts are part of this, of course. It’s important not to write anything contrary to what we know the truth to be, but facts don’t convey much in and of themselves. It’s the meaning constructed from them that matters. That is the core of the writer’s craft, whether in fiction or narrative non-fiction, of which Until Our Last Breath is an example.   

Where does truth come from? Author Henry James offered excellent advice to new writers when he said, “try to be a person upon whom nothing is lost.” In writing about Jews trapped in the ghetto in Vilna or engaging in acts of sabotage as partisans, I didn’t get all my facts from books. I don’t think the book would have been published if I had.  I gathered from my own experience and occasionally from literature (in particular the Bible) the images and sensations that I hope make the book come alive for readers.  Going out without a winter coat on the first warm day in spring, the feel and sound of snow crunching underfoot, the rustle of bodies in a crowded room, the softness of another person’s lips, the sweet ache of first love.  I am my source for these, for they are things I know.

It takes far more concentration, I’ve found, to write “true sentences” with these kinds of facts than with the ones from books.  Susan Vreeland offered as a  blessing for writers this verse from Psalm 19: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight.”  One doesn’t need to believe in God, or anyone outside the self as the judge of one’s work, to know what this means.  As a writer,  I have to be real before my books can be.


A page from A Moveable Feast
A page from A Moveable Feast
Uncategorized, Until Our Last Breath

“Encouraging the Imagination to Come Alive”

I had the great privilege of listening to Susan Vreeland speak at the San Diego Book Awards on May 16, 2009. Since that evening was rather full of distractions (Until Our Last Breath and The Four Seasons both won in their categories and The Four Seasons won the Theodor Geisel Award for book of the year), it’s taken until now to come down out of the clouds and give a serious thought to what Susan had to say.

Susan Vreeland
Susan Vreeland



How wonderful it was to hear a career teacher and novelist bring those two professions together into a powerful statement about teachable moments, and the imperative for serious writers to offer such moments in our work. It’s not enough for non-fiction writers to convey facts.  We have to convey meaning, or better yet, allow readers to find it for themselves. It’s not enough for fiction writers to create characters and plunk them down into a place and time.  If there’s no wisdom to be gained by what happens to them, why bother?

“Writers are “practitioners developing …the compassion born of imagining the lives of others, fictional or real,” she said.  It is both our charge and our honor to encourage the imagination to come alive, for it is with the ability to imagine the lives of others that we move in the direction of real humanity.  “Where there is no imagination, there is no human connection.[…] Where there is no connection, there is no compassion. Without compassion, then community, commitment, lovingkindness, human understanding, peace–they all shrivel.” 

Shriveled hearts, we all know, are capable of great harm. But as Susan pointed out,  “each time we enter imaginatively into the life of another is a small step upwards in the elevation of the human race.” Forget about writing books that are no more than shallow diversions, she says.   Go for “themes that matter–issues of faith, morality, mortality, humanity, artful living, literature that explores the ways that Love can make a difference in this world.”

I’m thinking now about UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH and how well Susan’s words reflect what I was trying to accomplish as I wrote it. 

I would not have been interested in becoming its author at all if the themes she spoke of were not so readily apparent in the story of the Vilna Ghetto.  Amazingly, not a single ghetto resident died of hunger or in an epidemic, despite the horrific conditions.  Why?  Because the community vowed it would not happen.  Mortality statistics in the ghetto for those who were not victims of organized murder were actually lower than in the rest of Vilna in the same period, and only slightly higher than the city’s annual mortality rate in the years before the occupation.  The Jews were in it together, and everyone’s health and safety mattered. They weren’t going to help the Nazis do the job.

That’s the kind of thing I wanted to write about. The themes of community and commitment were found not just there, but everywhere in the story I was privileged to tell, and I think that’s what brought UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH  recognition not just from the San Diego Book Awards, but recently from the Christopher’s as well. The Christopher Medal goes to books and other media that “affirm the highest values of the human spirit.” If the Jews of the Vilna Ghetto and the partisan camps in the Rudnicki Forest did not affirm those values, I could not have written a book that did. 

There’s more from Vreeland’s speech I want to write about.  Look for another post to my diary in a few days.  For now, if you want to read her speech in its entirety, here’s the link.


“Hesitant bursts, with long silences in between”

How lucky could a writer be to have a partner whose idea of a good summer read is the fiftieth anniversary edition of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style?

Just this morning he read to me from the foreword by Roger Angell, E.B. White’s stepson. Angell describes White typing his weekly New Yorker column as sounding like “hesitant bursts, with long silences in between.”  I can’t imagine a better description of what it is like to write, or a better statement than the one White frequently made about the result:  “I wish it were better.”

Actually “Strunk and White,” all the identification this slim volume needs, has its origins ninety years ago, when E.B. White took a course from Professor Will Strunk at Cornell University. One of the required texts was a roughly fifty page, self-published text by Strunk, presumably designed to help students write papers that would not be quite so painful to read. Almost forty years later, in 1957, White dusted off this little treasure, and with minimal updating, launched it into the realm of the true classics.

The fiftieth anniversary edition contains all Strunk’s original, pithy advice, plus an essay by White, who is perhaps best known as the author of Charlotte’s Web. “The  preceding chapters contain instructions drawn from established English usage,” White explains.  “This one contains advice drawn from a writer’s experience with writing,”  and is meant as “mere gentle reminders [of] what most of us know and at times forget.”

So here, dear readers (and writers), are a few of my favorites:

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.  The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.” So true! It is with these that we build a strong text, relying on modifiers only when the situation cries out for more than powerful, well chosen nouns and verbs can provide.

“Do not dress up words by putting ‘-ly’ on them, as though putting a hat on a horse.” I’ve made a point in my recent work of trying to avoid all use of “-ly,” unless to do so creates worse difficulties in producing crisp, succinct writing. This always has to be the ultimate goal, but it’s better to show what a sly smile looks like, than say “she smiled slyly.”

And my favorite, though most painful of them all: Revise and rewrite.  Remember it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. This is a common occurence in all writing, and among the best writers.” I’m in good company, apparently, because I think I spent more time revising Until Our Last  Breath than I did writing the original manuscript.  It’s no fun, and as I near the end of the first draft of my new novel, The Laws of Motion, I know much of the heavy lifting still lies ahead.  Everyone who’s ever written a book, or even a page, knows to expect to mess with it over and over again, and perhaps to end up throwing it away altogether.

Our first drafts are the pass in which all the potential of the material cries out and it’s our job to impose discipline on it.  Sometimes we don’t want to do that, and I think  we shouldn’t  worry about it too early in the process. Often it’s easier for others to assess a new work as a whole, and the person we become by writing it (yes we do grow and change!) frequently delivers some good messages about how it could be improved.

In the end, the taskmaster for all writers is the same one E.B. White listened to, the one that says “make it better.”  And every writer knows that such a taskmaster is never silenced just because a work has an ISBN number and a cover around it.  I wonder whether Strunk or White ever winced at their own published  writing.  I know I sometimes do at mine.